Banks Four Leagues in the Air

The Ives Expedition up the Colorado River Part I
By Salvatore Trento
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Arizona is a state of mountains, high mesas, and forests. Stretching across the state from the northwest to the southeast is a region known as the Mexican Highlands. To the southwest of this band of mountains is the great Sonoran Desert.

Although first explored by Spanish conquistadors in the early sixteenth century, the land remained remote and relatively unpopulated by Anglos due to its rather hot and arid climate. But with the damming of many rivers, the Colorado first among them, large artificial reservoir lakes were created. With stored water came the great population shift to this region of recent decades.

The north-central region of Arizona encompasses one of the most astonishing cuts within the earth's crust: the Grand Canyon. First partially explored by the early Spanish, the canyon was terra incognita for hundreds of years. By the mid-1800s, however, the United States Congress, with the cajoling of the Department of War, thought it important to find out exactly what was in the canyon and whether the Colorado River was navigable. Several expeditions attempted to find out. One was successful in surveying this bizarre place. Its early sense of awe and mystery is recorded here.

Steaming Up the River
The first American to experience and write about the mystery of the Colorado River's deep inner canyons was Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. In 1857 Ives was assigned the task of determining whether the Colorado River was navigable. If it was, it would be of immense value for transporting supplies to various military posts in New Mexico and Utah.

Ives and crew did the impossible. They had a "mini" steamboat built in Philadelphia, had it transported in pieces by ship to the Isthmus of Panama, where it was taken by train to the Pacific Coast, put back on a ship, and then transported to San Francisco. It was then sailed by schooner around the Baja Peninsula, up through the Sea of Cortez to the Gulf of California, and onto the mouth of the Colorado River, where it was reassembled for the journey. For the next six months Ives and his men steamed upriver over three hundred miles before setting out on mule to explore vast stretches of the Grand Canyon. Although only seventy-five miles of the river was navigable, Ives wandered into portions of the Colorado that had never been seen by white men before. He also mapped part of the Grand Canyon for the first time. The trip was one of daring and courage.

The Ives Expedition started where the Colorado River meets the sea, in the upper Gulf of California. The city of Yuma in modern Arizona, but then a military outpost, was a stopping point on this remarkable journey. Today, the heavy use of the river for the water needs of the American Southwest has virtually dried the flow to a mere trickle. Furthermore, the six dams on the Colorado stretching from Denver to the Mexican border have made the once-mighty river into a placid stream. It would be impossible to duplicate Ives's water journey today. One can, however, hike into various parts of the Grand Canyon to get some idea of the gorgeous terrain he encountered.

History of Colorado River Exploration
In 1857, John B. Floyd, the secretary of war, commissioned Lieutenant Ives to find out how far the Colorado River was navigable. In the mid-1800s, very little was known about the Colorado River. While the northern and southern sections were familiar, the midsection—the area we now know as the Grand Canyon—was completely unknown. Nonetheless, some portions of the river were among the earliest parts of America to be explored.

Fifty years after Columbus landed on Watlings Island in the Bahamas, Spanish missionaries were trekking up the Colorado. In fact, Ives reported in his account of his expedition that more information about the river was obtained in the early 1500s than in the three subsequent centuries.

In 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado traveled through the territory now called New Mexico. A detachment of his men led by a Seqor Dias traveled westward. They discovered the Colorado, naming it—Colo, "Red" and Rado, "River"—and following it south to its mouth.

Another of Coronado's captains, named Cardinas, reached far into the river's course. Cardinas's account of the trip states that "after twenty days' march, over a desert, they arrived at a river, the banks of which were so high that they seemed to be three or four leagues in the air." Some of the men tried to climb down to the river but gave up after reaching impassable areas. This was the first description of the Grand Canyon. After this time most people simply avoided the great impasse of the canyon, opting to cross New Mexico and the Arizona region well south of the canyon.

The Ives Expedition
Ives started his journey in late November. At the mouth of the Mojave Canyon (near the present Lake Havasu City) he experiences the wonder and mystery of place:

An abrupt turn at the base of the apparent barrier revealed a cavern-like approach to the profound chasm beyond. A scene of such imposing grandeur as that which now presented itself I have never before witnessed. On either side majestic cliffs hundreds of feet in height, rose perpendicularly from the water. As the river wound through the narrow enclosure every turn developed some sublime effect or startling novelty in the view. Brilliant tints of purple, green, brown, red, and white illuminated the stupendous surfaces and relieved their somber monotony. Far above, clear and distinct upon the narrow strip of sky, turrets, spires, jagged statue-like peaks and grotesque pinnacles overlooked the deep abyss.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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